04/25/2013 11:38 am ET | Updated Jun 25, 2013

Honoring the Courageous Truth-Tellers

The signs were always there, even if our military leaders chose to ignore them or the general public, with its short attention span, moved on to worry about something else.

There was the Navy's Tailhook scandal in 1991 that was largely brushed off as a "boys will be boys" episode. There were the stories about cadets being sexually assaulted and harassed at our service academies or the "isolated" cases of officers being charged with rape.

The statistics can no longer be ignored. One in five female soldiers is sexually assaulted, Nation editor Katrina vanden Heuvel told the audience Wednesday at the 10th Annual Ridenhour Prizes in Washington, D.C. Female soldiers in combat zones are more likely to be raped than killed in combat, she said.

"These numbers are so staggering to almost numb us," said vanden Heuvel, as she introduced the filmmakers behind "The Invisible War," winner of the 2013 Ridenhour Documentary Film Prize.

"The Invisible War" tells a story that demands to be told, even if there are people in our government and military who would rather ignore it.

Amy Ziering, the film's producer, said she and director Kirby Dick never expected the film would have the impact it did. The film has been cited in Congressional hearings, all members of the Joint Chiefs of Staff have seen it, and the military is using it to raise awareness about sexual assault.

"This is a film we were told time and time again not to pursue," Ziering said. "We were told not to waste our time--no one would listen."

This year's other Ridenhour winners include NASA climate scientist James Hansen, author Seth Rosenfeld and journalist Jose Antonio Vargas.

The awards are given to those who exemplify the courage and truth-telling of the late Ron Ridenhour, the former U.S. Army helicopter gunner who exposed the My Lai Massacre based on accounts he had heard from fellow soldiers during the Vietnam War.

After he finished his tour in Vietnam, Ridenhour, who later became an award-winning investigative journalist, wrote letters to 30 Members of Congress, telling them about the massacre--an effort that eventually led to congressional hearings and one criminal conviction.

And though it's been 45 years since My Lai and 15 years since Ridenhour died from a heart attack, My Lai's lessons are not lost in the deeds and works of this year's Ridenhour Prize winners.

The lessons are echoed in Seth Rosenfeld's book, "Subversive," which shows the government's first response when faced with things it wants to keep quiet is often to "lie, conceal and cover-up." It's in the story of Jose Antonio Vargas, an undocumented immigrant who knew he had to tell his story even if it meant losing his job. It's in the work of James Hansen, a former NASA scientist whose tireless efforts to warn the world about climate change have made him the target of the energy industry and its lobbyists.

And the lessons ring, perhaps, loudest in "The Invisible War," the documentary that was nominated for an Oscar.

What happened to My Lai, a Vietnamese village where as many as 500 unarmed villagers--many of them women, children and the elderly--were murdered, showed us the military's chain of command may be ideal for fighting wars but is not so conducive to encouraging whistleblowers.

That's the same institutional flaw exposed in Ziering's and Kirby's documentary. From the Ridenhour citation:

While rape victims in the civilian world can turn to an impartial police force and judicial system for help and justice, rape victims in the military must turn to their commanders--a move that is all too often met with foot-dragging at best, and reprisals at worst."

The chain of command has a way of protecting those at the top, said Randy Fertel, who helped found the Ridenhour Prizes in 2004 to honor his late friend.

In the case of My Lai, only 2nd Lt. William Calley was convicted. For his part in the massacre, Calley served only three and a half years of house arrest.

This week, it's a good time to remember Ron Ridenhour. He refused to let the horrors of My Lai get covered-up by a military brass that just wanted the story buried and forgotten.

My Lai matters, Fertel said, because we keep finding ways to repeat it.

A version of this article also appeared on POGO's blog.